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First Nations communities fare well in fight against COVID-19

Citynews 1130 Vancouver

Last Updated Jun 26, 2020 at 7:26 pm PDT


Just 87 First Nations individuals tested positive for the disease between Jan. 14 and June 14

Chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority says communities still concerned about travel

Communities will decide for themselves whether they will continue to urge visitors to stay away: medical officer

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — First Nations communities in B.C. have fared well in the fight against COVID-19, according to health officials, and they want to keep it that way.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority, said 87 people tested positive for the disease between Jan. 14 and June 14.

Four people have died, and there are only three active cases.

“This is out of more than 5,500 tests that have been done so far,” McDonald said.

No cases were recorded among children younger than 10, while there were six among those 10 to 19 years old.

The information is available through linking the First Nations client file — which identifies status First Nations people, regardless of where they reside in B.C. — with provincial data sets to provide a clear picture of the number of First Nations people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The credit for this relative success must go to the choices our First Nations leaders have made to implement strong public health measures. Communities have made unnecessary travel very limited, and canceled or postponed large gatherings that are central to their culture and way of life,” McDonald said.

Many band offices also closed their doors and had their staff working on urgent matters remotely, while emergency operations centres opened and non-residents were restricted from visiting communities except for essential services, such as work and food security, McDonald said.

‘History played a role’

History has also played a role.

“History is an ugly thing for many First Nations communities,” McDonald said. “We have people alive and well who tell the stories of previous pandemics of Indian hospitals of TV of losing people in those circumstances and losing control. And that kind of response, that fear response, that internal memory of those things, makes people extremely aware, I think, culturally, as well. We have so few elders now who are knowledge holders and language keepers, and communities are very aware of their importance in community and the need to protect them.”

McDonald still has some concerns as the province encourages non-essential travel within B.C. as part of the third phase of the government’s restart plan.

“First I need to say that for the decision to go to Phase 3 is a political one and the role of the provincial government, despite any advice I might give or anybody else might, give the decisions are made at other tables,” she said.

“Am I concerned? Absolutely,” McDonald added.

“If we relax our precautions too quickly. We could see a surge in cases.”

She said members must continue to follow health and safety protocols.

“We must continue to do this for a while longer for the sake of the most vulnerable among us, especially our elders, our language holders and knowledge keepers.”

‘Travel still a concern’

McDonald said limiting travel has been significant to limiting transmission of the virus among First Nations communities.

“I think the other piece that was significant was the conversations communities were having with those who normally travel in and out of the community. They may be service providers, they may be family members, and others who are serving people who are making deliveries, those kinds of activities the essential activities were quite limited and under strict control, so that the possibility of transmission was reduced,” she added.

“There were challenges and we had one community cluster that resulted because of an individual who left to go to work in a neighboring community and returned. But once that was acknowledged, things were put into place to really limit the spread in the community and it was successfully kind of stopped in its tracks.”


McDonald said First Nations communities remain concerned about visitors who might not take the same precautions as they have.

However, she said those communities will decide for themselves whether they will continue to urge visitors to stay away.

“My role, as the chief medical officer, is not to politically control communities, but to respect their self-determination,” McDonald said.

“Each community will be doing their own risk assessment and making decisions about the choices about people coming in and out of the community or traveling through the community themselves. And we continue to have conversations about how to best support the decisions that communities are making.”

‘Data helps us understand’

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry shared such concerns.

“As we know, COVID-19 has brought many challenges to our province. And with that, there has been fear and anxiety, with an urgency to do whatever may be required to protect our communities and our families and for Indigenous peoples. The apprehension is particularly understandable given the differential impacts that past pandemics have had on Indigenous peoples in B.C.,” she said.

“We also recognized very early on that, to be able to understand the impact on First Nations in British Columbia, we needed to have the data to understand what was happening. And because of that, I compelled the collection of the data and the linking of the First Nations client file, so that Dr. McDonald, and the First Nations Health Authority had the data that they needed to be able to understand the impact and to support our communities across B.C.”

Back to school

Henry said 30 per cent of First Nations students returned to in-class instruction at schools after the province relaxed restrictions as part of Phase 2, although the number was more than 60 per cent in some areas.

“We have been making good progress in supporting indigenous youth and completing school, and the high school completion rates have been going up in the past few two years so we don’t want to lose that positive gains,” Henry said.

McDonald added many First Nations communities have worked hard to increase access to computer equipment, to have Wi-Fi connections, and ensure delivery of school supplies.

“And given the opportunity in the upcoming term, there will be an opportunity to catch up, to continue to be engaged, and to succeed,” she said.

“The number of students in First Nations communities who are graduating is increasing steadily over time, and we certainly hope that that continues.”

‘As a physician, I’m disgusted’

McDonald also responded to a question about an investigation into allegations of emergency room doctors and nurses playing racist games of guessing the blood-alcohol levels of patients, particularly Indigenous people.

“As an individual, I’m shocked and saddened. As a physician, I’m disgusted, but not surprised,” she said.

“And I think that’s very much the response that our nations have brought forward. We know because my phone rings at least once a week with, if not that complaint, another complaint about people who feel they have not been well treated because they are Indigenous or people who have received less than adequate care because they are Indigenous. We know that this instance is really the tip of the iceberg. And while we absolutely support Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and her work, and the ministry for responding so quickly to the incident in question. We know that there is much more work to do.”

Turpel-Lafond, a former child and youth advocate, has been appointed to investigate allegations and make recommendations about immediate and long term next steps.